Welsh international George Williams’ stunning individual hat-trick saw Forest Green Rovers maintain their place in the League Two play-offs places with a 4-1 victory at Newport County AFC.
Williams sent a stunning 25-yard free-kick into the net via a deflection after just three minutes, before his attacking partner Tahvon Campbell doubled the advantage just before the break by completing a free-flowing counter-attacking goal.
Padraig Amond reduced the arrears with a finely struck penalty in first-half stoppage time, but Dan Butler’s red card just after the break followed by another sumptuous 35-yard free-kick from Williams put Rovers back into command.
The 23-year old completed the scoring when rounding off his hat-trick on 57 minutes, this one another fine effort after the away side spent a period of possession with the ball and made it count.
Defeat means County fall to 11th in the League Two table, four points off the play-off places, whilst all the teams who started the day in the top four places lost.
Having suffered a narrow defeat in their final away game of 2018 on Saturday at league leaders Lincoln City, Mike Flynn elected to make three changes to his starting side when returning to Rodney Parade.
That saw the Exiles return to the 3-4-1-2 system that has worked so effectively when implemented this season, particularly at home, and Mickey Demetriou was fit enough to return to the defensive line.
Having come off the bench in the last few weeks, Joss Labadie had reached that stage in his recovery where he was fit to start, beginning from the off in a contest for the first time since March.
Tyreeq Bakinson completed the players returning to the starting side, whilst Robbie Willmott, Mark O’Brien and Antoine Semenyo all fell to the bench.
Forest Green Rovers manager Mark Cooper made just the solitary change to his side that ascended back into the play-off places for the first time since October 27th with a home victory over Crewe Alexandra.
The away side matched up County with a 3-5-2 system of their own, as Reuben Reid – normally a goal scorer against the Exiles – dropped to the bench.
And it was Reid’s replacement in the Forest Green starting side – Tahvon Campbell – who stole the show in the first-half and scored what was arguably the best goal from an away side ever at Rodney Parade.
Before that strike, however, Forest Green had already put themselves a goal to the good after just three minutes through another strike of pure beauty, this one from attacker George Williams.
The 23-year old Welsh international superbly curled a free-kick home from 25-yards via the aid of a deflection in the County wall, leaving Joe Day absolutely no chance between the sticks.
Flynn had bemoaned the slow starts to matches in League Two after the defeat to Lincoln, but the Exiles really did respond this time and were probably unlucky not to get an instant response.
Matty Dolan blazed over from distance, Jamille Matt stung the palms of James Montgomery in the Rovers goal, before some clever interchange between Mickey Demetriou, Matt and Amond saw Tyreeq Bakinson test the shot stopper with a looping header.
The pressure and the tempo was still being set by County as Amond sent a header over the crossbar after 29 minutes, but you can’t stop quality and Rovers doubled their advantage with a minute to go before the break.
There looked nothing on when a loose clearances fell to Joseph Mills on the left-side, but he somehow carved out a chance after a marauding run and his pass to Williams set the move in motion. He found Brown who sent it through to Campbell in a rapid counter-attack, the attacker cut back a County defender and curled home to complete a stunning goal for the visitors.
It was certainly a sucker punch after County had fought back to gather some ascendency, but all wasn’t lost at this stage and the Exiles had a massive chance to get themselves back into the contest in first-half stoppage time.
Montgomery erratically rushed off his goal line to try and clear a corner-kick, but he caught Amond in the face and gave the referee no choice but to award the spot-kick.
Amond stood up well to send the Forest Green shot stopper the wrong way and the Exiles at-least had a route back into the contest ahead of the second-half - the Irishman dragging another shot wide that could have seen them level at half-time.
But the game was effectively over as a contest after 52 minutes when Dan Butler was shown his marching orders and Williams converted his second free-kick of the match in the space of 30 seconds.
David Pipe unfortunately lost his footing near the centre-circle and Rovers were able to break clear through Williams, that left Butler with no choice but to bring him to ground and as the last man, the red card soon followed.
Just when you thought Williams couldn’t replicate his free-kick from the first-half - he eclipsed it - and smashed this one straight into the top corner from all of 35 yards.
The man advantage aided the away side from there, some of the passing at times was brilliant and sustained for long periods, with it highlighted on 57 minutes when they grabbed their fourth.
This passing move must have featured nearly all of the visiting players and spanned probably 20+ individual passes, Williams eventually getting the ball on the edge of the area before running past two and curling into the bottom corner for a superb hat-trick.
Credit to County for at-least trying to force their way back into the contest, Amond by far and away the best player at trying to carve things out, and he sent two headers over from corner-kicks as the game fizzled to its conclusion.
Day made smart saves to deny substitute Dayle Grubb in added time then Liam Shephard, but that was it for a difficult afternoon at Rodney Parade for County.
Newport County AFC (3-4-1-2): Day, Pipe, Franks, Demetriou, Bennett, Butler, Dolan (O’Brien 59’), Bakinson, Labadie (Willmott 8’), Amond, Matt (Semenyo 80’)
Subs not used: Townsend, Marsh-Brown, Harris, Sheehan
Forest Green Rovers (3-5-2): Montgomery, Shephard, Rawson, Gunning, McGinley (Collins 75’), Mills, James (C), Winchester, Rawson, Williams (Grubb 62’), Campbell (Reid 72’)
Subs not used: Worthington, Thomas, Archibald, Morris
Referee: John Busby
Attendance: 4,213 (356 AWAY)
Next up for County: Crawley Town (29th December 2018) HOME